AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The earliest form of aerial reconnaissance dates back to the civil war, when the Union Army flew hydrogen filled balloons high above the battlefield to gain a greater vantage point.
Today's aerial reconnaissance has come a long way from the days of Gen. George McClellan's Balloon Corps.
The Marines of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, are riding the wave of technology as they fly the Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle, the Marine Corps' only dedicated aerial reconnaissance aircraft.
"We provide unit commanders the ability to see what is going on in an area before and while they are operating in it," said Capt. Stephen M. Dickerson, mission commander and native of Shreveport, La. "We can scan ahead of a convoy or patrol without the presence of an attack helicopter. Day or night, we provide them with the advantage of being able to see what lies down the road."
Unlike the other flying communities in Marine aviation, the enlisted Marines of this squadron are responsible for almost every facet of the mission. From flying the aircraft and operating the payload camera, to takeoffs and landings, enlisted Marines keep the 'eyes of the MEF' wide open 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
"Our Marines have 'hands-on' during every phase of the mission," said Staff Sgt. Ronald L. Wolfe, UAV internal operator and native of Carlisle, Pa. "It's not just like going out to fly a remote controlled air plane. There are a lot of moving parts, and the all the Marines in the squadron go out of their way to ensure the mission is accomplished."
Because there are only two UAV squadrons in the Marines Corps, the VMU-2 Night Owls have been extremely busy throughout each Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Prior to the war, the entire unmanned aerial community flew on average, 300 flight hours per year. Due to the value of the service they provide, the Night Owls have been flying an average of 500 hours per month while deployed.
"Because we are flying constantly, staying on top of maintenance is more crucial than ever," said Lance Cpl. Brian W. Barnett, UAV mechanic and native of Mechanicsville, Va. "The equipment on the aircraft is very sensitive, so it is vital that we ensure they receive the best maintenance possible."
The advantage of the Pioneer lies in its flexibility and versatility. The surveillance aircraft can be used for battlefield assessment, forward observing for artillery and close air support, search and rescue, and observation and surveillance.
"We provide a huge asset for a large variety of requesting units," said Staff Sgt. Thomas B. Kush, intelligence chief and native of Weirton, W.Va. "The products we provide to unit commanders remove a lot of unknowns from their mission."
Serving as one of the only two 'drone' squadrons in the Corps, most of the Marines are on their third deployment of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Despite the long months and longer days the Night Owls continue to support security and stability in the Al Anbar province.
"We know that there are Marines on the ground depending on our capabilities," Barnett said.
"With the amount of hours and hard work these Marines put in, you would expect them to be worn out or demotivated," Dickerson added. "But they are continually surpassing all expectations and accomplishing the mission every day."